Tag Archives: Edna Mae Ferguson

NaNoWriMo Day #28: Inner editor’s ready to explode

My 2012 National Novel Writing Month project, “Dixieland,” passed the 50,000-word mark on Thanksgiving night. Tonight I uploaded the 52,000-plus words for verification that, for the third straight year, I am a “winner.” Just hold the applause. Fifty-thousand words does not a novel make; it’s just an exceptionally good start. Another 30,000 to 50,000 words should make it novel-length, and the editing/revising process, which will begin sometime in December, will add back story, complete fragmented or suggested scenes, and add the bulk that is needed to make this story truly complete.

My bound-and-gagged inner editor can only be held back so long, even with three rolls of Duck tape. I managed to get to this point without influence from inner editor’s mind-melding efforts. I will unleash his evil intentions in a few days. (I say “evil” because the very first thing he’s going to say — SCREAM — is, “Every single one of those 52,000-plus words SUCK!”)

For now, I give you a lengthy, two-part excerpt of a three-way dialogue featuring protagonist Edna Mae Ferguson, the accidental stenographer for Steven X. Kennedy, editor/publisher of the weekly Silverdale Sentinel in fictional Silverdale, Ky.; Mr. Kennedy, who is trying to sell his newspaper in order to move with his wife, Victoria, to Arizona, where the climate will be less cruel to her rheumatoid arthritis; and prospective buyer, Justin Richards, who aptly fits the title, “religious zealot.”

Unedited, not including attribution for all speakers (although it should be clear who’s speaking), and mostly just dialogue. I think it will be a quick read. If you see ALL CAPS, that’s where I’m expecting inner editor to go crazy. Let me know what you think, what more you want to know about Edna Mae, Steven Kennedy, or Justin Richards.

This was a fun rabbit trail to follow. I almost couldn’t keep up with their exchange. I’m expecting some lively comments.

===

“Jesus Christ the King of Kings is my boss.” Justin Richards, a round-faced chap about 40 years old, with a perpetual smile and pronounced southern accent, strolled into the Sentinel, greeting Steven and Edna Mae. “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

Edna Mae looked up from her steno pad. She glanced at Kennedy, then back toward Justin Richards. “Me?” she asked.

“Both of you good folks,” he replied. “I sense that we’re all on the same page here, the same frequency on the spiritual dial.”

Kennedy answered. “I am a Christian.” Edna Mae nodded. “Me, too.”

“Oh, but have you been truly baptized of the Holy Ghost!” He was nearly shouting, and with the fervor of an evangelist. (SHOW, DON’T TELL, RE: FERVOR OF AN EVANGELIST).

He gently waved a hand in front of him. “Oh, where are my manners.” He held out his right hand. “I’m Justin Richards, servant of the Lord.”

Kennedy shook his hand; Edna Mae stepped back and nodded low. (WHAT? SHE CURTSIED?)

Richards just smiled. “Well, bless your hearts. Bless your hearts.”

Kennedy asked, “Now, where were we?”

Richards smiled. Edna Mae answered, “I think we stopped at “Holy Ghost.’”

Richards laughed. “The Spirit of God does have a way of stopping us in our tracks, yes and praise God.”

Kennedy cleared his throat. “No, I mean, where were we in terms of showing you the Silverdale Sentinel. What are your questions?”

Richards stepped toward Kennedy, placing a hand on the publisher’s shoulder. He gently shook Kennedy’s shoulder.

“I have no questions that the Lord has not already answered.” He turned to see Edna Mae scribbling furiously. “I’m going to buy your newspaper, friend, for the Lord God on High has already established it so.”

Edna Mae added, “It’s ordained.”

“Exactly,” Richards agreed, pointing to Edna Mae. “Exactly. And I’m changing the name of this secular instrument of the press to The Sword of the Lord, by which the frightening and powerful Spirit of God will reach the heathen hill folk.”

Edna Mae: “Appalachia?”

“Exactly,” he agreed again, drawing out the pronunciation. “You know the heathen hill folk of whom I speak?”

Kennedy cleared his throat again. “Well, that’s probably an issue, because we don’t send any subscriptions to the … well, that area …”

“Friend, I knew you might be reluctant if the Lord had not revealed this to your heart, but your spiritual maturity is not to blame, otherwise you would have already executed the Lord’s work.”

“Which is?”

“The Sword of the Lord” will be delivered by the servants of the Lord, to each and every heathen and godless man, woman and child in the hills. Oh, that they might cease having relations with their domestic stock …”

Edna Mae glanced at Kennedy, and he motioned for her to stop taking notes. But she continued to write.

“That could be an expensive proposition, producing, printing and delivering a newspaper to everyone in Appalachia. That’s a pretty steep price.”

“The Lord Jesus said, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, verse 20, “Because of your unbelief,” and he pointed to Edna Mae and Steven, “for verily I saw unto you. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” and he pinched a thumb and forefinger, then squinted, repeated, “a grain of mustard seed,” … ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing,” he paused, and repeated, with great passion and added fervor, “nothing,” “and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”

Edna Mae: “So, in a way, you want to take the Word of the Lord to the mountain.”

His eyes seemed to light up. “Exactly!” “And you will be by my side as we carry out the Lord’s work.” (DO I REALLY WANT THIS GUY TO BE CREEPY, TOO?) Edna Mae resumed her note-taking.

“That’s going to take a large influx of cash,” Kennedy reminded him. “That’s just a reality.”

“My dear friend, I’m sure you know that Jesus spoke those words to his disciples because they were unable to cast out the devil from the lad who felleth into the fire and into the water, because the demon within his young body simply vexed him – VEXED him!, I tell you.”

Kennedy shook his head. “Miss Edna Mae, you getting all this?”

“Yes, Mr. Kennedy.” She paused. “Exactly.”

Richards continued. “The disciples were unable to cast out that demon, and Jesus, oh, it broke his precious heart, and he saith unto his followers, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me.”

“And the child was cured,” Edna Mae said.

“Exactly!” “Cured. And the demon departed out of him and the child was cured – yes, you said it – cured from THAT VERY HOUR.”

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NaNoWriMo Day #15: Half-way to the finish line

Reporting my National Novel Writing Month total at the halfway mark of this 30-day exercise of writing abandon: I’m at 37,901 words, ahead of the 25,000 word pace. Knock on wood that the dreaded writer’s block will continue to stay cooped up.

Dixieland could be even longer at this point except for my habit of writing dialogue without attribution, movement or other scene-building verbiage. I make up for that, I believe, with my ALL CAPS THINKING AS I WRITE, I NEED A REFERENCE HERE TO FORESHADOW A CHARACTER’S APPEARANCE IN THE NEXT SCENE.

That’s how I write when I’m on a roll. I know what I want to say, but I don’t want to get hung up on a detail that might derail that roll. I’m not sure how many ALL CAPS BURSTS OF INDECISION I will have come Nov. 30, but those SHOUTS are my cue to reach into my mental queue for something more meaningful.

Meanwhile, I’m offering another conversation between my main male protagonist, Alvie Ferguson, and little 11-year-old racist Ladd Miller. Remember, it’s during World War II, just before Alvie goes off to join a flight crew for bombing runs over Germany. His young bride, Edna Mae — the main character in Dixieland — eventually joins them.

There’s no attribution for some of the dialogue. Alvie speaks first, followed by Ladd …

“You boys savin’ the foil from your gum wrappers?”

“Ain’t got no gum, Mr. Alvie.”

“Well, let’s say you erase ‘ain’t’ from the dictionary in your head and I’ll give you a few sticks.”

“That’d be swell, but I don’t see how sayin’ ‘ain’t’ is so bad. Everybody knows what it means.”

“True. But your talkin’ could mean the difference between working the shipyard or bein’ one of the slick lawyers on Lawyers Row.” REMEMBER: EDNA MAE IS A STENOGRAPHER FOR ONE OF THE SLICK LAWYERS, AND HE’LL LET HER GO WHEN HE DISCOVERS THE FERGUSONS ALLOWED DIXIE AND LEWIS KING TO MOVE IN WITH THEM, AFTER ALVIE GETS HIS ORDERS TO DEPLOY.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, when you go to look for work, they might say, ‘This chap sounds like a shipyard scrub,’ and you’ll get your job there.”

“Well, I kinda like that idea. Them fellers are some tough crackers.”

“Oh, yeah, and nice, nice guys. Not saying anything about their character. But their education has ‘em working in the shipyard today, which is where they’ll be workin’ the day they retire. You wanna work that hard for that long?”

“But I ain’t – well, I don’t gots much up here.” Ladd pointed to his noggin. “I might just be shipyard material.”

“Well, Mr. Crosby says if you don’t work hard in school and get your lessons and graduate, you may grow up to be a mule. Or a pig.”

 Edna Mae spoke as she gently shut the screen door behind her. “Or a fish.”

ANOTHER REFERENCE TO MUSIC OF THE ERA. ‘SWINGIN’ ON A STAR’ WAS A BING CROSBY HIT, AND ITS MESSAGE WAS “STAY IN SCHOOL.” BE SURE TO INCLUDE OCCASIONAL REFERENCES TO THE RADIO SHOWS, MOVIES AND MUSIC, JUST ENOUGH TO KEEP THAT MID-40’S, WW2-ERA AURA.

Alvie gave her a peck on the cheek.

“Eww! Yuck!” the little imp Ladd retorted. Edna Mae ignored the boy’s reaction and swept a lock of her husband’s white hair off his forehead.

“Alvie, I declare you will have your own little army of boys to do all of your bidding. Maybe you should own a shipyard. You’ll have reliable, loyal hands.”

“Reliable?” He pointed toward Ladd.

“Have you conducted all your business with Mr. Ferguson here?” she asked the boy.

Ladd crossed his arms, cocked his head and cleared his throat.

 “My daddy says he heard you got a colored livin’ with you. In the same house.”

 “I am not aware of any reason why my living arrangements are any of your business, young man.”

Ladd looked away and kept his gaze fixed on the horizon.

“Well, if’n that’s true, I just know you got more sense than to let them coloreds use your indoor commode, the same one y’all use.” He shook his head and turned to face the other direction, never making eye contact. “That’s just plain nasty.”

Alvie waved the boy away. “You run along, Ladd. We treat people like people, no matter who they are or where they’re from.”

Ladd Miller walked away. “Everybody’s gots their place is all.”

Alvie wrapped an arm around his bride’s delicate waist and shot back. “And from the sound of it, your place should be in school.”

Let me hear (read) what you think. C’mon, now. Just a brief comment will make my day.

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NaNoWriMo Day #10: The joy of creating

Word count through the first 10 days of National Novel Writing Month: 26,159. Just over halfway to the “winning” goal of 50,000 words. And it occurs to me — as I’ve suspected all along — that 50,000 words will not tell the entire story of “Dixieland.” At this rate I’m on pace to hit 50K on Nov. 19, two weeks from Monday, and that’s the goal that I have now adopted. I’ll need to do that if I’m going to meet or exceed the 64,000 mark I hit in 2011 with “Chasing The Devil.” (Which, sadly, is still unfinished, yet it’s waiting patiently, like a loyal puppy, for some loving attention. Soon. It will be soon.)

Today I encountered that chaos that typically comes much sooner than this. My chronology has come unraveled, and I’m no longer writing in order in keeping with my chapters and outline. Part B requires me to go back to Part A to plug in some foreshadowing, which creates another layer for a major character, which means making sure Part F connects the dots from A, B, and D, but waiting to connect C and E later.

This is where I discover parts of the story that I didn’t know were there. My main character didn’t just show up in central Kentucky and start working for the Silverdale Sentinel, as my outline notes. (Silly outline. You tease, you). No, my main female protagonist, Edna Mae Ferguson, showed up for her first day of work for Carl Smith Stenographer Contracting Company (yeah, pretty lame, but it works for now), only to find out that he’s got something else in mind. The local newspaper publisher called for a stenographer, so crotchety old Carl Smith, who calls publisher Steven Kennedy a “muckraker,” instead sends Edna Mae, hoping the young, unproven steno might cause the publisher some grief, and hoping to get out of paying Edna Mae a $20 sign-on fee and a booklet of coupons for bologna sandwiches from Ore Run Grocery.

(When you think of crotchety old Carl Smith, think “Ed Asner as Lou Grant.” Hey, it’s okay to embrace a stereotype or two).

Until two hours ago, Carl Smith had never crossed my mind. In fact, there’s an entire staff of stenographers in the office at the poorly named company, and one of them — don’t know who just yet — will reappear later as an advocate. Or, in keeping with the perpetual fiction writing mantra of conflict-rising tension-resolution-more conflict again, this still unnamed, uncreated character could be a mini protagonist of sorts.

I love this!

With that in mind, I’m going to share here a post that I made today on the Columbia NaNoWriMo forum in response to another WriMo who lamented that she was falling behind in her word count. Not suprisingly, she is discouraged. Even if she does not complete the 50,000 words in 30 days, however, she found solace in this: “I am writing again.”

Here was my response, and it’s meant for all my fellow WriMos, whether we are on a crazy, blistering pace to finish ahead of schedule or on a slow, cumbersome trek, still waiting to shift from first to fifth gear.

“I am writing again.”

Those words inspired ME. Thank you. Because I know that feeling.

My wife and I were in Hobby Lobby and Michael’s this evening looking for something unrelated to writing, but when I see all those blank canvasses and all the writing, art, coloring, stenciling, etc. materials I really get pumped, because I imagine the sheer glee that someone experiences when they turn those blank canvasses and sheets into beauty.

That’s what WE do. This computer screen is our blank canvass. And any time you’ve written, you’ve done something with that canvass. Is it a Picasso or a Monet? Of course not. Is it Hemingway, Faulkner, Steven King, Michael Crichton? Nope. But we’ve created, and we do it for ourselves first and foremost, because we must. It’s in our DNA somewhere. And the more we do it, the better we get, and the more we realize that the greatest joy isn’t simply staring at the masterpiece, but the process of creating it.

Carry on, my friend. You are CREATING!

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NaNoWriMo Day #8: Letters to and from lovers

Today’s report on my National Novel Writing Month project, Dixieland, which is now at 19,511 words. My protagonist couple Alvie and Edna Mae Ferguson are separated by Alvie’s World War II deployment with the Army Air Corp. He will become a POW. But I didn’t settle until today on how to depict his war experience. Tell me what you think.

Up until the first letter he writes from Stalag Luft I after being taken prisoner of war, his entire war experience is told in the letters he writes to Edna Mae. I thought it would be different, a unique approach, to tell more of their backstory — courtship, early life, etc. — in those letters. The setting for Alvie will shift to the German POW camp for the last two months of his time there, but until then the reader won’t “see” through Alvie’s eyes — only through his letters to his young bride.

This approach also presents a challenge for me to write Edna Mae’s letters to Alvie. After all, I’m not a 26-year-old woman who pines for her husband. (Talk about writing outside the lines here).

The excerpt I’m providing below is Alvie’s first letter from the POW camp, and it includes a glimpse into my creative process. As I write, I make notes to myself (see italics). The notes remind me that I’m foreshadowing, adding to earlier (so far unwritten) references, and making sure to bring some things to resolution, where the reader will say, “Aha! I remember that from back in Chapter Whatever when Alvie mentioned he was bringing his nephew a souvenir.”

As always: unedited. Tell me what you think.

______

My dearest Edna Mae,

You probably know by now that I’m a guest of the German army and we are very well cared for. I couldn’t eat better if I was made of cornbread. (THIS IS A SURE TIP-OFF THAT HE IS NOT EATING WELL. Earlier in the story, I’ll have Alvie make a reference to a meal that one of Edna Mae’s sisters made. Her sis will say, “Well, Alvie Ferguson, I’ll swannie. I believe you must be made of cornbread.” To which Alvie will whisper to Edna Mae, “If I was made of cornbread, I’d just soak this stuff up. Wouldn’t have to taste it then.” I’LL HAVE HIM MAKE ANOTHER “if I was made of cornbread” statement in reference to uncooked or spoiled food.)

I feel your prayers and I know it won’t be long before we’re staring at the same moon together, not continents apart. Tell my Billy that I’ve got him a souvenir. (IT’S THE SHRAPNEL lodged in his arm). Tell your folks hi. I’ve never loved you more. Your Alvie.”

EDNA MAE’S LETTER to Alvie after learning he’s alive:

Sweet, handsome Alvie, my Superman,

I’m writing this without even knowing where I shall send it, but if I don’t write these words now I’ll quite likely come unhinged. You’re alive! My darling, I weep and shout in both sadness and joy. The WAAC sisters teach us and insist that we keep our chins up and not show a sign of sadness or weakness, but I just can’t do it right now. So I might not send this. I do not desire to bring you low; just thinking of any of my words souring your handsome countenance is unbearable, but you can always see right through the platitudes. You know my heart, and that is why this separation is so powerfully unbearable.

My love, you have the most resourceful ways of taking care of yourself and bringing your thoughts to happy, gay times. I know how you care for and love your chums, and how they so look up to you and rely on your strength. Yet I cannot wait another second for you to let yourself be weak in my arms, and let me take care of you.

I simply cannot pretend with you. I truly know there was much more you wanted and needed to tell me. I am sure I have the motor mechanics in my brain well enough to build an engine, yet I now must learn how to build the fuselage and the wings. Yes, my love, if it takes me the rest of my years, if you are not here, I will build that airplane myself and come and get you.  And if you return before I put in the last rivet, then you can fly our little airplane and show me something – anything away from the memory of these last months – where we can soar past this time.

You know I’m just silly. Do not fret over thinking that I am assembling a little airplane.

But if I could, my love, if I could …

It will soon be one year since your deployment. Perhaps our separation will end quite soon. I pray for you, my love. I still keep one side of the bed unslept and ready for you. And now that I lock that door, I cannot wait to lock us inside our nest. Oh, how I miss you, my Alvie.

I will stay strong. There is so much to tell you about my adventure to Kentucky and the tales of working at that little newspaper. I feel that I have become a woman in the truest sense of the word. Perhaps someday you and I will move away from here and start our own little newspaper. That would be grand!

I must sip some hot tea and say my prayers before I retire. Your caress, your strong shoulders, your mischievous grin and the boyish pranks that you play are always, forever on my mind. And in my heart.

Your bride, Edna Mae

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NaNoWriMo Day #5: Taking in strays …

Here’s another excerpt from “Dixieland,” my National Novel Writing Month project that has reached 14,676 words. Tonight I wrote a scene that is, so far, the most difficult scene I’ve ever written. Unfortunately, that’s both a confession and a tease, because I can’t reveal that scene until the novel is finished.

I followed that challenging effort with something more light-hearted, and I have to admit that I’m having a blast making light of Sondra Ramsey’s pretentiousness. Sondra is Edna Mae Ferguson’s mother, and after Edna Mae’s hubby, Alvie, goes off to war, Edna Mae begins taking in strays. Her mother is present when the menagerie of cats and children begins.

In this excerpt, three of the children living in sharecropper shacks on the Ferguson Homestead have shown up at Edna Mae’s front door with a momma cat and two kittens. I realize I’ve referred to her mother as Sondra Ramsey AND Mrs. Ramsey. These inconsistencies will live at least until Dec. 1. (Inner editor, bound and gagged with duct tape, is going mad). Keep in mind: it’s an unedited work-in-progress. Comments, critiques, questions are not only welcomed but encouraged.

Dixieland, from Chapter 3 …

The raggedy little children kept their heads down but their eyes raised toward Mrs. Ramsey, who had called on her daughter in a in a tightly-wrapped, floor-length white dress. She wore a cream-colored hat – sort of resembled a nurse’s cap – on her head and two-inch high heels on her feet.

“I’m sure you were expecting guests, Edna Mae, because, I declare, it would be positively rude –indeed – to just show up uninvited.” She crossed her arms and looked down at the children. The momma cat was trying to get free. “Positively rude.” Mrs. Ramsey raised her eyebrows with the last “rude.”

Gertie Leeper, the middle child, finally spoke, never taking her eyes off Mrs. Ramsey.

“Miss Ellie, who is this lady?”

Edna Mae grinned to herself.

“I’m going to look at these poor felines,” she injected, completely dismissing her mother’s lesson in Southern etiquette and disarming her unapproving gaze.

“But, dear, you must give a reply to the invitation.” Mrs. Ramsey sidestepped the Leeper children and handed Edna Mae a press-printed, personally signed invitation to the Natchez Garden Club’s spring pilgrimage tour planning social. In addition to the where, when and what time neatly arranged on a pink-tinted card, it also bore the signature: “Dear Edna Mae, please come. Respectfully, Sondra (Mrs. G.E.) Ferguson.”

The momma cat jumped from the oldest child’s arms and dashed up the stairs.

“What impudence, Edna Mae. Really!”

Edna Mae just shook her head. “Really, mother? You couldn’t have just signed it, ‘Mom?’”

“Well it’s quite the social event, and requires …” Mrs. Ramsey sidestepped again to avoid stepping on a kitten. “It requires a formal request and a formal response.”

Edna Mae patted the youngest child’s head and thumbed the invitation. She gently directed the oldest child to go retrieve the momma cat.

“Well, they’ll just meddle in your bedroom, I just know it …” Mrs. Ramsey’s indignation grew. Edna Mae whispered to Gertie, “Go and help your sister find the momma cat,” again dismissing her mother’s haughty words.

“Mother, could you be a dear and help me make some lemonade for these children?” Edna Mae reached down and scooped up one of the scrawny kittens. She held its nose to her nose then handed it to the youngest Leeper lad.

Sondra Ramsey stomped her foot, barely making a “clink” with a high heel on the hardwood floor.

“Do you not detect the slightest bit of boorish, disrespectful incivility?” She stomped the other foot. “All this carrying on.” Edna Mae headed toward the kitchen.

“Come on, mother, let’s squeeze some lemons.”

“Well, I declare!” Mrs. Ramsey was shouting. “I don’t know how to tell your father how you’ve let this get so out of hand. Wild animals in the house – IN the house! – and colored children coming and going …”

In a flash, Edna Mae turned and was nose to nose with her mother.

“They are children, mother. Children.” She wanted so badly to put a finger in her mother’s face, in the same way she’d been raised. Edna Mae stepped back and Sondra Ramsey began to speak.

“Ah!” Edna Mae raised one hand, just above waist-level. “You, mother, are the only one who has crossed a line here today.”

Incidentally, I realize I’ve now made reference to “sidestepping” at least a half-dozen times. I take that as a sign that I’m not subconsciously making sure that my theme of racial tension is included in the fabric of the story. (The white folks in “Dixieland” sure do a lot of sidestepping.)

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NaNoWriMo Day #4: That old-time religion

Tonight was my first (slight) detour from my outline. I’m at the point where I need to write the main conflict — the meat of the story, the single event that changes my main character — but I realized I hadn’t yet injected enough back story about her journey of faith which, for many years, was superficial and based not on love but on fear. What follows is a 700-plus word excerpt from Edna Mae Ferguson’s conversion experience at the age of 8 in April 1926.

Unedited. Some rabbit trails here. Hey, it’s a work-in-progress, right? But no apologies, fellow WriMos. Remember, these are our stories, our rules. And inner editors remain bound and gagged in padded, sound proof rooms in our mental closets. Right?

EXCERPT, “Dixieland”

But eight-year-0ld girls didn’t question spiritual things. Edna Mae learned that lesson the hard way. Pastor Clemens a year or so earlier expounded on the virtues of childlike faith and how the Lord Jesus besought the children to come to him. He also said that anyone who came to him with the faith of a little child would go to Heaven. In the same breath, Pastor Clemons directed all the parents to “cease the infernal shuffling and fidgeting of your disrespectful children.” Sondra Ramsey thumb-thumped little Edna Mae on top of the head as a domino-effect of thumb-thumping cascaded through the congregation.

“Ouch!” Edna Mae exclaimed. “What did I do?”

She’d already said too much and it was unusual for her daddy to answer in church, but when he said, “You’ve got to stop fidgeting,” Edna Mae immediately responded, “But little kids fidget, and Jesus loves little kids.”

What followed at home was the worst spanking of her life, and probably had more to do with the ladies on the pew behind them that giggled and guffawed over Edna Mae’s cute little quip. But it embarrassed her daddy. And you never, ever embarrassed George Elliott Ramsey. Apparently one needed childlike faith to come to Jesus, but once you were there, no more need for that. And no fidgeting.

“What’s a wretch?” Edna Mae couldn’t get that thought and images out of her mind. “A wretch like me.” Sounded like “witch,” and that wasn’t good. Whatever it was, a wretch was someone who Jesus could love, but probably nobody else loved a wretch, and Jesus could save a wretch, but then did that person have to remain unwretched in order to stay in good graces with the Lord?

So many questions, but she dare not ask.

Sister Maybelline played a long instrumental piece while the deacons passed their hats to collect offerings from the folks who had been tossing in large coins and even paper money earlier in the week, but now, on the seventh night of hat-passing, there were mostly pennies and probably a few super saver grocery stamps thrown in. George Elliott Ramsey wore a brown fedora with a pheasant feather tucked inside the trim ribbon. He tucked the feather into his front pocket before passing the hat to collect coins.

Edna Mae whispered under her breath, “What is a wretch?” and when it came time for Brother Burden to preach his final sermon of the revival, he dramatically DASHED to the pulpit, shouting “What?” before he even grasped the pulpit. Nary a shoulder slouched.

“What is a wretch!?” he shouted.

Edna Mae didn’t know whether to be terrified or overjoyed that God Almighty so quickly answered a question that she hadn’t even put in a prayer that was properly bookmarked by “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen.”

You are a wretch!” the preacher shouted, his brow already drenched in righteous sweat. “If you are lost in your sin and don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ, YOU are a wretch!”

Edna Mae – and the other 70 or so worshippers underwhelmed by the big ceiling fan – sat motionless.

“And if you DIE as a wretch, oh, my friend, my beloved,” Brother Burden continued. “If you die and don’t know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, oh, my friend …”

Brother Burden’s voice trailed off, his head dropped onto his chest, and he wept. “OH, my friend, my beloved …”

Edna Mae wanted to stand and shout, “Oh, my friend, my beloved – WHAT?”

A great thing was about to be said, and for the perfect punctuation, God Almighty sent another lightning bolt that struck a tree just outside the door. The lights went out.

“Oh, my friend, if you die a wretch, you most certainly … will … go … to HELL!” Another lightning bolt and church-shaking clap of thunder. “Come to the altar NOW! and say the sinner’s prayer!”

Edna Mae sprinted to the front of the church and had no trouble finding the altar in the pitch dark church. Someone lit an oil lamp and the light glistened and reflected off Brother Burden’s red face. Undoubtedly every person under 40 was at the front of the church, kneeling.

The collective spiritual angst was a din of commotion, yet also separate and distinct. The patter of raindrops on the church’s tin roof. Sister Maybelline’s piano gently playing “Just As I Am.” Brother Cy Burden repeating, “Oh, my friend, my beloved.” The sniffling and tears of sinners being saved. And a little girl, surrounded and lost in a crowd of wretches, softly pleading, “I don’t want to be a wretch I don’t want to be a wretch.”

If this comes across as a mix of serious, child-like reflection and a humorous depiction of an old-time revival service, please let me know, because that’s the effect I’m looking for.

Current word count: 12,058. Target for first four days: 6,668. On pace to finish: Nov. 16. But I’m not counting on it. The next three days will be especially challenging for my NaNoWriMo effort. My day job at the Columbia Daily Tribune — Tuesday’s election and a couple of other in-depth projects — will need my utmost attention between now and Wednesday.

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NaNoWriMo: “Dixieland” Day 1

Putting a wrap on Day 1 of National Novel Writing Month, the daily word-count goal is 1,667, which will produce just over 50,000 words for the 30-day NaNoWriMo. Two years ago I hit 50,014 words — whew! — just enough to be considered a “winner” of the month of literary abandon. Unfortunately, “Gone” remains unfinished, a work-in-progress. (Most novels — the ones that are actually published — are typically between 80,000 and 100,000 words, although I’m told that some Harry Potter books are about a million words. Or something like that). Last year I cranked out 64,000 words on “Chasing The Devil,” which also remains a WIP.

That brings us to “Dixieland” — already at 4,695 words. This story is actually the first in the series with the other two unfinished novels. I’ll share this scene from the opening pages of the story where I’m trying to establish the pervasive, yet mostly unacknowledged tones of racial tension through the words of little boys who have come to tell Billy Blanchard’s Uncle Alvie — a soon-to-be-deployed World War II airman — that his nephew is “fixin’ to get tore up” by the local bully. The dialogue picks up here where Ladd Miller, whose daddy is a school teacher and head of the local KKK, expresses complete disdain for black people.

Unedited, of course. (My inner editor is under a strict gag order, which will lifted on Dec. 1, except for work release for my day job at the Columbia Daily Tribune).

Dixie walked past the little boy on the sidewalk and stepped into the yard to speak to Edna Mae. The little imp snorted loudly, spat a nasty wad of phlegm near Dixie’s feet, and announced, “Daddy says coloreds are s’posed to halt to the white folks.”

Alvie made one long stride, squatted in front of Ladd Miller, and hovered over the boy even in a catcher’s crouch. “Tell you what, buddy, you need to step over there and run your foot through that snot, and apologize to Miss Dixie.” His firm voice was just above a whisper.

Ladd stepped back, shrinking. “And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t mop your foot through the snot, I’ll use your shirt collar to sop it up.”

The little boy tugged at his collar with balled-up fists. “You not gettin’ my shirt off me.”

“I won’t take your shirt off,” Alvie said, leaning toward the cowering boy. “I’ll sop up that snot with you still wearin’ the shirt.”

Ladd’s lips trembled. “I’ll tell my daddy.” He was about to cry.

Alvie leaned closer and his shadow swallowed the boy. “Well, your daddy will already know, ‘cause I’m tellin’ him first.”

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Dixieland: Ready for NaNoWriMo launch

Monday afternoon on my way home from work at the Columbia Daily Tribune I stopped at the nearest grocer to pick up a few items. I hadn’t planned on buying a card. It was one of those “Pages of Time” booklets; the ones that have nostalgic news from the year you were born. In the last few days I’ve poured over reference books at My Favorite Non-Home/Non-Church/Non-Work Place in  Columbia — the Columbia Public Library — and checked out some books and DVDs simply to get “in touch” with daily life in 1944-45 in the U.S.A., and more specifically Natchez, Miss.

But when I stumbled onto the display rack of greeting cards and “Pages of Time” booklets, there it was: “Your Special Year: 1945.”

I think I might have squealed like a little school girl.

Ahem.

When I checked out, the checker scanned the  little booklet and asked — oh, you knew she’d ask, didn’t you? — “Are you getting this for someone special?” Instead of simply saying, “Yes,” and hoping she wouldn’t ask, “Who?,” I answered, “No. It’s for me.”

Awkward silence.

Then I added: “Long story. At least I hope it will be.” She just looked at me and blinked, unaware that the phrase “at least I hope it will be” was a clue — foreshadowing, if you will — of what the purchase would help produce: “Dixieland,” my project for National Novel Writing Month 2012.

Here’s a sampling of some other resource material that I’ve consulted or continue to consult: “Natchez,” by Harnett T. Kane; “Since You Went Away: World War II letters from American women on the home front”; “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” by Anne Moody; “The Girls That Went Away,” by Ann Fessler (you might recall that one of the “Dixieland” characters is named Doris Fessler); and correspondence with an elderly woman who was “incarcerated” — her words — at the King’s Daughters Maternity Home in Natchez, and with someone from the historical society down there in Dixie; and a couple of DVDs on the war that give insight into life on the home front.

And for my listening pleasure, to put me in the moment of the era, I checked out the CD “Your Hit Parade: 1944.” Any of these names ring a bell? Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, “It Had To Be You.”

And I’m going to give away a secret that extends from “Dixieland” into “Chasing The  Devil,” the second part of this trilogy that doesn’t occur until 1990. The reason that Edna Mae Ferguson celebrates Christmas in July … well, you’ll have to wait to read “Dixieland.” Her husband, Alvie, is a POW and Edna Mae has fled to Kentucky when Christmas 1944 rolls around. And speaking of Christmas, Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was recorded in 1943; “White Christmas” was recorded in 1942.

Imagine my characters hearing those songs on Dec. 24, 1944 — Alvie in a POW camp, Edna Mae away from home in the hills of central Kentucky. Oh, yes, the theme music for the creation of “Dixieland” is most appropriate.

So here’s a final reminder to myself and all other aspiring WriMos. As we plot, scheme, write and flow from scene to scene, these three things are essential — absolutely vital — to making sure that what we write is something that will connect with readers:

– Conflict. My outline and character sketches have the word CONFLICT somewhat randomly inserted, in ALL CAPS, as a constant reminder that without conflict, rising tension and a story arc that incorporates lots of conflict and tension, I might as well be writing a grocery list.

– Hopes, dreams, wants and fears. What do my characters want? What are their dreams? Ooh: What do they FEAR the most? (Being alone? Not measuring up to a demanding parent/teacher/friend?) What makes them hold out hope for … Racial equality? A lover’s reunion? Forgiveness?

– Breadcrumbs. As a reader, I want to feel like I’m part of a character’s voyage of discovery, and I can follow breadcrumbs that will lead me to AHA!, I saw that coming, and other breadcrumbs that … sort of … trail off — but not to the extent that I feel insulted by the writer, especially when I see the main source of the seemingly irrelevant crumbs in the climactic scene. As the writer, I need to deliberately drop breadcrumbs without making it look deliberate.

Big sigh.

Twenty-four hours from the big start. Thirty-one days from saying, “I did it.”

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Dixieland: NaNoWriMo cast of characters

Brief background: “Dixieland” takes place during 1944-45 in Natchez, Miss., and the fictional central Kentucky town of Silverdale. Seems odd, I suppose, that a male writer would have a female protagonist, but almost every story/unfinished novel I write has strong female characters: protagonist AND antagonist. With “Dixieland,” it’s World War II, so we know a great many women were the ones keeping the home fires burning, so to speak.

With only four days remaining until National Novel Writing Month – when we embark on a 30-day quest to write 50,000 words – here is the cast of characters for “Dixieland.”  They all live in my head; some will come to life in the story. It’s possible that others are just part of back stories that won’t be told but are integral to me understanding my characters.

  • Edna Mae Ferguson – born in 1918, she’s 25 when the story opens. Townsfolk think that Edna Mae taking in stray cats and unwanted kids is just her way of coping with her husband being a “guest” of Adolf Hitler in Stalag Luft 1.
  •  Alva “Alvie” Ferguson – Edna Mae’s husband, born in 1916, he’s an Air Force waist-gunner on a B-17G. He’s a tall (6-4), strong guy with a heart of gold; high school sports star. One of seven sons of Truman and Pearlie Jean Ferguson. The family was stricken with the Spanish Flu in 1918. (Yeah, it’s an important detail. Foreshadowing …)
  • Dixie King, Edna Mae’s best friend, childhood playmate and almost constant companion. Dixie (the title’s namesake?) is black. Her husband …
  • Louis King is the handiest handyman that ever lived. He’s also an alcoholic.
  • Ray Hester, pastor of Natchez First Baptist Church. He’s a Bible-thumping (King James Version, of course) fire-and-brimstone preacher, concerned with the purity of the saints, meaning absolute prohibition of the mingling of races.
  • George Elliott Ramsey, Edna Mae’s father, an austere Southern gentleman and chairman of the deacons at the Baptist church. Look deeper. Dig into his past.
  • Sandra Ramsey, Edna Mae’s mother. I still haven’t decided whether to hate her or feel sorry for her. You’ll see …
  • Bob Lane. I won’t tell you anything about him yet. Quick story. A few years back a friend confided that when he was in junior high, a kid named Bob Lane bullied and tormented him, starting with the first day my friend had to undress in the school locker room. He was telling me this 34 years after it happened. I vowed to my friend that every single novel I ever write will have a horribly despicable character named Bob Lane, and that sometimes Bob Lane will meet a tragic, even gruesome, end. My friend appreciated that very much.
  • Thomas Miller. He’s a school teacher. And he wears a pointy, white hood over his face at times. I don’t expect you’ll like Mr. Miller.
  • Doris Fessler. She’s a school teacher, a character suggested by Perche Creek Yacht Club Commodore Gene Baumann. (See? I promised that I’ll use any character that someone else suggests. The offer still stands).
  • Michael Dooley, local grocer.
  • Owen Nickerson, unable to go to war (not sure why; any suggestions?) He’s a courier/delivery driver.
  • Henry and Nelda Colter, Doris Fessler’s parents.
  • Steven Kennedy, editor/publisher of the Silverdale Sentinel. His pregnant wife is Maryanne.
  • Katherine, 10-year-old deaf girl crippled by polio. She teaches Edna Mae sign language.
  • Lance Wilson, 14-year-old “retarded” boy. (Note: folks in 1944 Natchez didn’t know the term “autistic.” I cannot avoid using this offensive “R” word; nor can I avoid the reference to “colored” people. But I will not use the “N” word). Lance is both autistic and obsessive compulsive. He’s one of my favorite characters ever.
  • Ramona, the first “unwed” black mother that Edna Mae takes in. Keep in mind that being an unwed mother had much more of a stigma among white families. The reason I’ve had such a difficult time finding historical references to unwed black mothers being sent to “maternity homes” or being abandoned is because black communities typically provided support for them. It was the image-conscious, pretentious white families that sent their daughters away to care for a sick aunt. (Lots of sick aunts back in the day, apparently).
  • Lorenzo Casey, pastor of the “black church.” He’s not seminary-educated – of course — but don’t judge just yet.
  • Gene Swanson, Postmaster in Silverdale and owner of the Silverdale Mercantile, a five-and-dime general store.
  • Alvie’s flight crew: Julian “Jules” Presser; Marty “Smarty” McMann; Charlie “Sweaty” Bond; Andrew “Whitey” Black; and Buddy “Dee Dee” (Daredevil) Eastman.

There you have it as the cast of characters stands so far. It’s not too late to suggest a sheriff of Adams County, a sibling or two for Edna Mae, Alvie’s favorite nephew (give me a name), and so on. Don’t be shy. Comment with the first fictional character that comes to your mind.

Go!

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Welcome to “Dixieland”

Here’s what I posted last night as my novel info for National Novel Writing Month, which launches in Columbia at midnight Nov. 1. There’s a large group meeting at Country Kitchen at 10 p.m. Halloween night, and when the clock strikes 12, we’ll start writing/typing and the 30 days of madness begins! Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to some of the characters that will breathe life into “Dixieland,” a spiritual/religious/historical fiction novel set in the Deep South, Natchez, Miss., 1944-45.

SYNOPSIS

Feeding stray cats and taking in a “retarded” boy and a blind girl crippled by polio made townspeople in Natchez, Miss., view Edna Mae Ferguson with pity, but when she shelters unwed black women, she becomes a pariah, not simply a young woman coping with her husband’s status as a POW in World War II Germany. When hidden details of an unspeakable act against her are revealed, Edna Mae flees for her life, leaving behind her beloved “strays.” The journey uncovers sinister family secrets and the birth of a faith that propels her courageous return to Natchez to seek redemption.

Excerpt

Here’s the Western Union telegram that Edna Mae received:

6 Jan. 1945
The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your husband, Major Alva Ferguson, has been reported missing in action since 26 November over Germany. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified. Office of the Adjutant General.

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